Indian lessons from friends and fodder, the eye looks but the mind sees

I always have a book with me when I travel.  Most times I pick one up at the airport and choose something not too heavy either physically or intellectually so that I don't feel uncomfortable or guilty when I fall asleep with the work on my middle or in the middle of its prose. 

I like to call that type of literature "airplane fodder" which is another story altogether.  As recent readers of my posts will know, I have been travelling in Bhutan and India for the past week to advance the International Fund for Animal Welfare efforts in tiger and elephant conservation. 

As I was walking by the airport bookstore at the Indira Gandhi International airport, on my way to the IFAW Middle East office in Dubai, I slowed down to take a look at what was on the new release shelf and a book on the Moghul rulers of India caught my eye. 

This one glance seemed to begin a series of odd coincidences, the first of which being, just as the clerk was ringing up my purchase, the fellow who had handed me the book in the first place came running up to me with a second book saying it was half price with the purchase of the first book and he really thought I should have it. 

I made a joke about his wanting to educate me about India but decided to take the book as well.

I had just spent the two previous days reviewing IFAW global strategy with our programme directors and partners at the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). As a group, we had talked about the need to alter our tactics as any campaign is built on constantly shifting ground, one of the movements’ more frustrating traits and one which stuck with me as I pondered what it is that drives both our organisations to work in conservation when it sometimes seems like such an uphill battle. 

I teased my colleague, Vivek Menon, Executive Director of WTI about his constantly declaring “life is an illusion” and if only I would commit to working in India the process would teach me this lesson over and over again. 

Over the years, I am increasingly convinced that we will not win our fight to improve the lot of animals around the world by citing dry statistics but by claiming a moral imperative using those same vital statistics as ammunition rather than our primary weapon. 

It was with those thoughts in my head that I settled in on the plane to Dubai and opened the dubious second, half priced book that came as the suggested added extra.

The book, “Emperors of the Peacock Throne”, by Abraham Eraly is a fairly thick tome and not something that I would normally try to read on a plane over the din of the engines outside. 

I chuckled to myself about the buying the two books and the import of the subject matter while deciding to read the preface instead of diving into the work the way I would my usually lighter airborne fare. 

The first page of the “Emperors” preface quotes Albert Camus stating man cannot grasp the totality of history "since he lives in the midst of this totality." 

I thought that was equally true of conservation projects and was akin to a conservationist not being able “to see the forest for the trees”.  Hadn't we just discussed this very point in our meeting on how best to save elephants and tigers?

By the next page I found myself substituting the word "historian" from the text with the word "conservationist", my imaginary page then read,

"The conservationist is not a moral eunuch. In fact, it is his moral voice that gives his work its unique timbre - not to raise the moral voice is to treat conservation like paleobotany, with bland detachment."

Even the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard gets into the act by "affirming his subjective certainty in the world of objective uncertainties." 

So, I thought to myself as we descened that even if we as conservationists have all the scientific data proving wild animals are increasingly in danger from the threat of illegal wildlife trade, it wouldn’t be the science winning the day, it would be the “subjective certainty” stemming from the belief that the needless killing of wild animals is simply wrong, clearly a moral argument with unique timbre.

After my landing in Dubai with my eyes constantly looking at reams of paper, each sheet screaming out the horrific deaths of yet another group of elephants in Cameroon for their ivory or Chinese tigers for their skin and bones, I found yet more ammo to wield the weaponry of the subjective moral argument:

As intelligent and thinking animals, humans must do the right thing and stop the senseless killing of the last of these wild living beings. 

And I take a new lesson from this term in India, “the eye looks but the mind sees.”


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
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Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
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Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
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Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
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Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy